Distressed. Helpless. Filthy. Nauseous.

This is how I felt in Varanasi, one of the holiest and most revered places in India.

Wandering along the ghats, I observed the rituals.

A man placed a cup in the Ganges, pulled it out and drank in the holy water. He looked at peace in the belief that this water would purify him. A few metres up-stream a few people submerged themselves fully clothed in the water so that the Ganges would forgive their sins and assist in attaining salvation.

I walked for another couple of minutes and found a dead pig lying in the shallows, it hadn’t yet begun to decompose.  Someone had only recently thrown it in to be washed downstream into those bathing and drinking in the goodness of the Ganges. Next to the pig, a boy no older than four hangs his bottom over the edge of the steps with his back to the river.  He defecates directly into the water than stands up and runs towards his mother.

Further along the ghats I come across one of the small burning ghats.  The smell of burning human flesh fills my nostrils. I have seen death before, unfortunately it has been a tragic and all too realistic part of my life. It has ripped out my sanity, brought me to my knees and left me struggling to pick up the pieces of my shattered self for two years now.

But here on the ghats it’s not about grief, loss and devastation. It’s just about the everyday rituals of life. People walk past and children play nearby as this woman’s body burns. Oddly, I don’t find this confronting at all, it just made me ponder the meaning of death and how it means different things in different places.

As I was raised Hindu, my loved one was also cremated and their remains returned to water but each of these events were carried out in private. I couldn’t speak, I could barely stand, all I could do was howl. I certainly was in no position to conduct my farewells in full public view, but then I was not raised in India.

I remember through the haze of grief considering whether I should retain their ashes and bring them to India to be returned to their ancestry in the Ganges.  I had such a romanticized view of this spiritual river then.  Practicality took over and I chose not to carry their ashes to India. Now that I have seen the Ganges and how ill she is, I am so very grateful that my loved one was released into the sparkling blue ocean near my Australian home.

As I wandered through the tiny alleyways that snake their way through the back of the ghats, everywhere I stepped I was literally treading on someone or somethings shit. Every species imaginable has crapped all over the streets of Varanasi and it just sits there polluting the streets.

Yes I know, this is India. There is insufficient sanitation, housing and infrastructure which makes it almost impossible to prevent this from happening. Whilst poverty and pollution is not unique to Varanasi, it is more in your face here than anywhere else I have seen.

It’s easy for me, I am just a tourist and this was just two days in my life…. but for millions this is their reality, their home. These streets are where people live, where children are born and raised. This river is their lifeline, and it is slowly killing them.

The more I walked the streets and ghats of Varanasi the more distressed I felt. Watching grown adults choose to bathe in water that may give them skin diseases or drink something that may very well shorten their life span is one thing, but to watch infants and children be directed to do the same just broke my heart.

I know I do not have faith.  I used to have spirituality but the events of the past couple of years of my life have made it impossible for me to believe in fate and a higher being. However a huge part of me still admires those that do have faith and can put trust in their spirituality. That said, I believe rational logic must factor in somewhere.  To believe that you are drinking an elixir that purifies you whilst watching dead bodies, sewage and garbage float past you just defies basic logic to me.  My rationale mind just sees someone baiting disease and death.

A lot has been documented about the ill-health of the Ganges and whilst there are action groups in place, I have grave fears that too many will die and fall ill before anything comes near to being resolved. Particularly when you consider that almost a third of the Indian population lives along the banks of the Ganges, it is literally the lifeline for a large proportion of the country.

According to one source I read water pollution spreads diseases such as cholera, hepatitis, typhoid and amoebic dysentery, and these account for approximately a third of deaths in India each year. Another seeks to quantify it at between 1.5 – 2 million deaths a year in India attributed to water-borne diseases. That is almost 10% of the Australian population, dying from diseases that are almost unheard of there.  This is not just disturbing, but is entirely unacceptable.

The ill-health of the Ganges is not a new phenomenon, according to one source for the past decade one of the main tributaries has had no sign of animal life. As India’s population continues to explode the amount of waste that is dumped in it will only grow. Currently it is estimated that 1 billion litres (yes you read that correctly) of raw sewage is dumped in the Ganges DAILY. Sewage is only part of the problem, there are also dead animals, humans (who can’t afford cremation), crematory remains and just everyday rubbish.  During my time in Varanasi (and to a lesser extent in Haridwar and Rishikesh) I watched people throw all their garbage into the river for someone else to bathe in and drink further downstream.

According to the World Health Organisation only about 30% of India’s population has access to improved sanitation facilities.

So why do millions continue to put themselves at risk every year?  Is it really just blind faith or necessity because there are no other clean water sources or ignorance because no one has educated them of the risks.  I suspect it’s a combination of all three.

The bigger question for me is why is there not greater national outrage about this issue. Thousands are dying everyday and yet I heard more outrage about Metallica cancelling a rock concert. Is the situation so far gone that it is just hopeless or do people really not care?

After 48 hours in Varanasi I felt so incredibly disturbed.  Just walking the streets and watching people live their everyday lives amongst the filth and squalor made me physically ill. I didn’t feel clean and had developed a rather unpleasant case of diarrhoea, and I was one of the few who did have access to clean water.

So whilst I see stadiums being built and sporting events being hosted for the wealthy in India to enjoy there seems to be only limited progress in providing one of the most fundamental human needs, clean water and sanitation. If it can’t find a way to prioritise and provide these most basic needs what hope is their really for India and its future.

Tagged on:                                                                     

30 thoughts on “Varanasi: Is there any hope for India?

  • Pingback: The Differences Between North and South India | Rakhee Ghelani

  • Pingback: Holi Varanasi! | Rakhee Ghelani

  • Pingback: Holi Varanasi! « aussiegirlinindia

  • December 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm
    Permalink

    Well said Jack, I agree with you whole-heartedly.

    Akum, your earnest devastation at the cancellation of a Metallica concert gave me chuckle. , cheer up sweetie! *wink*

    And thanks for the post Raks. I’ve been trawling my way through as Ive only recently discovered your blog and it’s interesting to live vicariously through your experiences before I too get out of Australia an too India.

    Reply
  • December 9, 2011 at 12:44 am
    Permalink

    Fantastic post. Still feeling for your loss. Sending you big hugs. Remind me to cross Varanasi off my list of must-visit destinations!

    Reply
    • December 9, 2011 at 10:45 am
      Permalink

      Thanks Terry.

      Varanasi is somewhere that has to be seen to be believed, so perhaps keep it on the list.

      Reply
  • Pingback: The Differences Between North and South India « aussiegirlinindia

  • November 19, 2011 at 9:38 pm
    Permalink

    Hi, nice blog u have here. Love your writing style.

    I think its high time we open our eyes and admit the reality of our country – we have a LONG way to go and very frankly, how much ever I love the people here and love this land, I see no hope.

    Reply
    • November 19, 2011 at 9:41 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks.

      There is a long way to go and I agree it is hard to see a way out sometime.

      Reply
  • November 15, 2011 at 10:44 am
    Permalink

    I’ve heard of the Ganges River and what it’s all about from some friends who have been there. But your description paints such a vivid picture that I can smell the setting. I am planning to visit Varanasi (not feeling as comfortable about this decision) after reading this post during my 3-week trip in India next March. But Varanasi is like no other place you can really visit right?

    Reply
    • November 15, 2011 at 2:04 pm
      Permalink

      It is definitely like nowhere else on earth. Whilst not on my list of favorites, I do think it must be seen and each must make up their own mind about it, so don’t be discouraged about visiting. I will be back there next year with a friend who is visiting because I don’t think they should miss it either.

      Reply
  • November 3, 2011 at 8:33 pm
    Permalink

    its baffling to see that on one hand we are so touchy about our religion that a seemingly innocuous statement/ act can spark religion related roits and on other hand the very symbols of the religion be it the ganges, the “holy” cow, our temples(particularly the ones in north india,) are in such an appalling condition and no one is bothered about them. WHY? ….i have not been able to figure that one out.

    lack of sanitation and no national outrage :
    its not because there is lack of education, awareness, funds , its just a case of misplaced priorities. and the “sab chalta hai” attitude

    Reply
  • November 3, 2011 at 3:41 pm
    Permalink

    It saddens me that a glorious nation like India with such an extraordinary level of sophistication and education among the elite indulges in expensive vanity projects like space exploration and nuclear weapons but can’t see the sense in teaching basic hygiene. Education (particularly for girls) is the best route out of poverty and ignorance.

    Reply
    • November 3, 2011 at 6:21 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree education is key, but just ensuring there is clean water seems like a difficult task here as well. It will be very interesting to see how India develops in the next 20 years.

      Reply
  • November 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm
    Permalink

    I know exactly how you feel. I have been there and it was a huge shock for me. Its high time we start cleaning up Ganga. I tried but i could not take a dip there.

    BTW: I am still recovering from the Metallica incident. I was there waiting from 3 in the morning, just to secure a place in the front row. When they canceled the show, it was horrible. If i get fired from my job it would hurt less. Even after almost a week i still can’t listen to Metallica because every time i do, tears come rushing out., 🙂

    Reply
  • November 1, 2011 at 2:58 pm
    Permalink

    Raks I really appreciated this post. I have seen stories about Varanasi on TV and read books. The squalor and the pollution of the river is always contrasted with the ethereal beauty and the spirituality of the place. I have often wondered if I would be able to see past the filth to the beauty. I really appreciated reading your reaction to Varanasi, which I think gives me a bit of a reality check. Thank you.

    Reply
    • November 1, 2011 at 3:25 pm
      Permalink

      Cheers, glad it gave some perspective. I couldn’t get past the pollution, but perhaps I also need a different perspective.

      Reply
  • November 1, 2011 at 1:32 pm
    Permalink

    The dirt and filth that we see in many holy places leave us bewildered and make us wonder what is holy about them. Most Hindus visit Varanasi may be once or twice in a life time to perform rituals for ancestors. When I visited Varansi in 1972 and 1978 my memory is that it was not so filthy. During my last visit in 2001, I found it to be awfully bad.

    I do not believe that a bath in Ganges can purify us in the literal sense (obviously not) or in a ritualistic sense. But the sentiment associated with rituals for the benefit of our ancestors will pull millions of Hindus to Varanasi, Gaya and Triveni Sangam at Allahabad.

    Ganga passes thru less developed States which are generally not very clean . There is very little awareness of civic sense. So to expect the river to be clean (even if it is Ganges) is, may be , too much.

    You should read Chetan Bhagat’s latest book which is based in Varanasi. I do not recall the title. It is interesting.

    I found the references to demise of your loved ones quite moving. The finality of death is something that is quite hard to reconcile. Something within ourselves also quietly dies. But losing faith as a reaction is quite sad as it leaves a huge and painful vacuum within us, which is hard to fill. I speak from personal experience.

    Lastly, Varanasi , in spite of being perhaps the olderst city in India, still retains a sense of romance or aura around it. Most foreigners visit it inspite of knowing its present state. The broad perennial river, full of people at all times, bustling with life in the presence of death leaves a lasting impression on every one.

    Reply
    • November 1, 2011 at 1:59 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t think I expect the Ganges to be clean, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be as toxic as it was. Your comments are very valid, and I just hope that more civic sense will prevail.

      I haven’t previously documented publicly my feelings on the death of my loved ones. My story is quite detailed and there are many factors that have led to my loss of faith. Perhaps I will eventually feel comfortable enough to open up about them at another time. Thank you for sharing your experiences, I do find it helpful to hear of others experiences.

      I will put Chetan Bhagat’s book on my reading list for sure, heading to the book store right now.

      Reply
  • November 1, 2011 at 1:11 pm
    Permalink

    I did many things during my time in India, Rakhee; but swimming in the Ganges (as I saw MANY other backpackers doing), was not one of them. India runs contrary to many of our Western beliefs and norms – but who’s to say who’s right or who’s wrong. Take heart in the fact that I know the feeling of just wanting to shake the locals, or hit them, or something and say “Can’t you see?”, “Don’t you understand?”. As they said in the days of the Raj: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” It’s kind of odd when you see that epithet in action.

    Reply
    • November 1, 2011 at 1:18 pm
      Permalink

      I agree with you partially. What one thinks is “right” is different to what another thinks. But a fact is a fact, and all say that water will most likely shorten life span. Heartbreaking.

      Reply
  • November 1, 2011 at 12:54 pm
    Permalink

    Great post Raks and I can imagine how hard it must be to witness such obvious risk to life. So many questions but that is India by the sounds of it – contradictions. Do you really want to go back there?

    Reply
    • November 1, 2011 at 12:59 pm
      Permalink

      Not really, but it has to be seen I think, and I would not want you to do it on your own. So March it is for a return visit 🙂

      Reply
  • November 1, 2011 at 12:53 pm
    Permalink

    Great post Raks and I can imagine how hard it must be to witness such obvious risk to life. So many questions but that is India by the sounds of it – contradictions. Do you really want to go back there?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: